NEWS FLASH: PAKISTANI PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf accuses a senior Bush administration official of threatening to bomb his country back to the Stone Age! We'll get on with this potentially serious diplomatic incident in a moment — but first, a word from our sponsor, Simon & Schuster.
That was the gist of an odd commercial break in Friday's news conference by Musharraf and President Bush. The somewhat embarrassing love fest between the two leaders was moving along smoothly when a reporter asked about the explosive allegation scheduled to be broadcast tonight on CBS' "60 Minutes": In the wake of 9/11, Musharraf claims, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage threatened that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan unless it cooperated in the war on terror.
"I am launching my book on the 25th, and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day," Musharraf replied.
"In other words, buy the book, is what he's saying," Bush helpfully translated.
International diplomacy has always been dependent on external factors, but it has seldom hinged on the terms of a book contract. At a time when the developing world is protesting what it sees as U.S. unilateralism and bullying — as evidenced by the stark anti-American speeches (and their friendly reception) at last week's annual United Nations General Assembly session — Musharraf's claim threw gasoline on the bonfire. Yet rather than discuss and help resolve the matter during his U.S. visit, Musharraf decided instead simply to plug his upcoming autobiography.
Of course, there might be more behind Musharraf's reticence than a shameless ploy to sell books. Pakistan's president is in a very difficult jam.
Bush, Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are slated to dine together Wednesday, and security issues will doubtless dominate the agenda. The fighting in Afghanistan has grown more intense than any time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, largely because militants trained and armed in Pakistan are freely crossing the border. Rather than crack down, Musharraf in early September signed a truce that essentially guaranteed free rein for the extremists. Karzai is rightfully angry, and Bush has ample reason to side with him. Not only is the Afghan violence harming U.S. troops, but key Al Qaeda figures, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding out in Pakistan. Yet Musharraf's soon-to-be-released claims of a threatened bomb attack will make it politically difficult for Bush to exert any real pressure.
So maybe diplomacy and book publishing aren't that different after all. In both, timing is everything.